A Bit More Padding on Helmets Would Make Soldiers a Lot Safer, Researchers Say

U.S. soldier in Afghanistan

U.S. soldier in Afghanistan  (Reuters)

A little padding goes a long way.  That's what researchers found when trying to find out how helmets can provide better protection from blunt force contact.

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Labs, one of the nation's top research facilities, said by adding just a quarter-inch, or even an eighth of an inch, of padding, helmets had a 24 percent reduction in force to the skull.

"When you look at the accelerations that can cause injury, just a small increase in thickness can knock that acceleration down to a point where it'll make very severe injuries potentially a little less severe, and very light injuries maybe not happening at all," explained Michael King, the study co-author and a Lawrence Livermore mechanical engineer. 

The yearlong study, funded by the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization, used computational simulations of impacts on the head and helmet.  To get accurate data, it turned to professional football, where concussions are also a big concern, and tested the thicker foam systems used by NFL players against the spongier pads used in combat helmets to see which worked best.

It concluded that the Army's helmet padding  worked just as well as the padding in NFL, but that there just needed to be a little more of it. 

Brain injuries are a major concern in the battlefield, as when an I.E.D. goes off and a soldier in a Humvee gets knocked around, or a large chunk of debris or shrapnel hits their helmets.

Concussions among U.S. troops in Afghanistan increased from 62 diagnosed cases in June to 370 in July when the new rules were imposed, according to the U.S. Central Command, which oversees combat here. From July through September, more than 1,000 soldiers, Marines and other U.S. servicemembers were identified with concussions, more than twice the number diagnosed during the previous four months, Central Command says.

Currently, Kevlar helmets come with 3/4-inch foam pads inside. But while adding more padding may sound like a simple fix, it would require soldiers to wear a helmet one size bigger, and carry additional weight on their shoulders all day. 

Helmets normally weigh about 5 1/2 pounds, and a larger size would add about 4 ounces, Moss says.

Soldiers say their gear is heavy enough as it is, and for now, the Army is balking at the trade-off. 

Even so, the study could influence helmet design.

"People are generally interested in not being injured, and if you can propose something that is what appears to be a relatively simple fix, people are going to be interested in that," says Lawrence Livermore physicist Willy Moss, another co-author of the study. 

Moss said their findings also could lead to bigger and better helmets on the gridiron, bike path and ski slope -- areas where concussions, especially among kids, are all too common. 

In the meantime, engineers will continue working to develop a combat helmet that offers soldiers increased protection without weighing them down, as they head into battle.

Claudia Cowan currently serves as Fox News Channel's (FNC) San Francisco-based correspondent. She joined the network in 1998.